Nikkel was a finalist for Iowa Teacher of the Year

Joan Nikkel, seventh grade teacher at Pella Middle School, was a finalist for Iowa Teacher of the Year. (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

Joan Nikkel may not have been named the 2020 Iowa Teacher of the Year, but the 25-year Pella teaching veteran is honored to have been considered – and grateful for the ability to stay in the classroom while being recognized.

Nikkel was born and raised in Oskaloosa. She continues to live in her family home with her husband of 37 years, Dan.

As a student in Oskaloosa, she was inspired by her third grade teacher to pursue education as a career. NIkkel says this teacher changed the lives of many students. Seeing what a difference a teacher can make, Nikkel made the decision to enter the same profession.

“She was just an awesome lady,” Nikkel said. Through the course of her own teaching career, Nikkel has been told by a few of her former students upon whom she had a similar effect. The moment when someone comes to you and says you inspired them is an awesome feeling, she said. Good fortune smiled upon Nikkel around 15 years ago, when she bumped into her inspirational teacher to do the same thing.

After graduating from Oskaloosa High School, Nikkel studied at and earned her degree in elementary education from William Penn University. Her first teaching job was a fourth grade class in Oskaloosa before being asked to move to the middle school. From there, she came to Pella as a reading specialist and today is a seventh grade language arts teacher at Pella Middle School.

This was the first year she has been named a finalist in Iowa’s Teacher of the Year contest. The process to take part in the contest includes researching and creating a presentation about one’s educational career. Even if she had not been selected as a finalist, Nikkel said working on this project reminded her of why she got into the profession. Being named a finalist was just a nice surprise and icing on the cake.

At her level of experience, she is shifting her attention to “finishing strong” as retirement is closer on the horizon. All she wants to do for the remainder of her time in the classroom is to keep getting better.

“I’m never done improving,” she said. “I’m almost at a panic that I won’t have it all figured out at the end. I want to leave knowing that I have done all that I can do.”
It’s this passion for teaching and being in the classroom that lessened the blow of losing the Teacher of the Year title to George Anderson from Cedar Rapids. Honorees serve as ambassadors to education and act as liaisons to schools, higher education, and organizations across the state. This would have taken her away from the students, staff and building she cherishes.

Nikkel admits she was apprehensive when first approached with the idea of teaching middle school students. What she has found is that they are smart, fun and energetic. She believes today’s youth gets a bad rap for allegedly being disengaged or undisciplined. This has not been the case for her. Her students are purpose-driven; they need to know why they are working on something. She tries to help spark identity into these young people who are trying to find out who they are.

Encouragement for this is all around her. It all starts at the top with Superintendent Greg Ebeling, whom she says provides caring, genuine leadership and a belief in his staff. Middle School Principal Josh Manning is Nikkel’s biggest cheerleader, as well as the rest of the staff. Her colleagues are all supportive of one another as well. To her, the honor of being a finalist for Teacher of the Year is recognition for the entire building and district.

“It’s teacher heaven here,” she said. “It’s easy to show up to work every day.” That’s due, in part to the talented and dedicated people around her.

Along with husband Dan, Nikkel is surrounded by the love of her son Brett and his wife, Katie; daughter Jenna, son Andrew and daughters Lin and Anna. She has three grandchildren, Hannah, Caleb and Isabelle.

Though she knows retirement is in sight, she has no immediate plans to do so.